The Spy Who Made Camp David Possible
Ashraf Marwan realized as early as the late 1960s, that Egypt and the rest of the Arab world had aligned themselves with the wrong super-power. The Soviet Union’s socialist economy would eventually collapse, leaving Israel’s increasingly close ally America standing tall. We now that he was right and looking out for himself and to avoid long-term disaster, Marwan became a one of the most highly placed intelligence sources in the Mossad’s history. We learn of this in Ariel Vromen’s “The Angel”, a Netflix Production. Marwan was Nasser’s not-particularly-beloved son-in-law, but Sadat thought more highly of him (he also appreciated the close alliance between himself and his late predecessor’s family). As a result, Marwan served as his envoy to nearly every Arab leader requiring a little special handling (especially Gaddafi) and was privy to all of Sadat’s war plans. Most of those plans would come across the desk of Mossad chief Zvi Zamir. It was difficult building trust between him and his Mossad handler, Danny Ben Aroya on both sides.
In “The Angel”, we see all the intrigue that was going ongoing on in Cairo, featuring Sadat and Sami Sharaf, Marwan’s sinister former boss during the Nasser regime. There seems to be a constant threat of mistrust between Marwan and the Mossad and it becomes tedious. We would think Zamir would give a lot of rope to a source this highly placed. Yet, the film does a nice job of squaring Marwan’s actions with his patriotic loyalty to Egypt. If I did not know that Marwan died in 2007 (under mysterious circumstances), I would think that the script was trying to protect him.
Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari is excellent as Ashraf Marwan, even brooding charismatically and he is backed by a fine supporting cast. Israeli-born, LA-based director Vromen keeps the clockwork tightly wound and does a nice job of conveying the era. It is a nicely crafted period espionage drama, but it is not the definitive portrait of the Mossad’s heroic service that we yet to see.
The film tries to fill in the blanks in the secret life of Ashraf Marwan, who spied for Israel in the lead-up to the October, 1973 war. We know that he was the son-in-law of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and close aid to his successor, Anwar Sadat and that he spied for Israel in the lead up to war and provided warning of the imminent Arab attack. Everything else about Marwan’s clandestine activities cannot be confirmed.
Zvi Zamir, the Mossad director during the Yom Kippur war, called him “the best source we have ever had.” Simultaneously, Egypt claims he was a double agent, feeding Israeli intelligence exactly what Sadat wanted them to think. After his mysterious death from a balcony fall in 2007, Marwan received a hero’s funeral from his homeland but was eulogized in Israel as well. The movie functions is an entertaining history lesson, with the opening narration explaining the preceding Six-Day War, and the lasting effects of Israel retaking the Sinai Peninsula. Vromen does an excellent job fleshing out both sides of the conflict and keeping things accurate. While more time is spent with the Egyptian characters, like Sadat (Sasson Gabai) and Marwan, the Israeli characters such as Mossad agent Danny Ben Aroya (Toby Kebbell) are given time to gain sympathy for their struggles. the movie only falters when exploring its lead character and that is because of the ambiguous nature of Marwan’s exploits. Vromen takes plenty of liberties, and rightfully so.
The filmmakers go so far as to connect Marwan’s exploits to the eventual 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty signed by Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin. It’s a poor storytelling decision since the film gives us no reason to believe that the person we’ve been watching would do anything so high minded and selfless. Truth is, we have no idea what was going through his mind and never will, but the filmmaker’s job is to make us believe and here is where the film fails. “The Angel” gives us a protagonist with purely selfish intentions at first. His powerful father-in-law does not respect him and he seeks revenge. Later we see Marwan grapple with his gambling addiction – perhaps money was the most significant factor in him contacting the Mossad. There’s a major shift in the final scenes, when Marwan lays bare his true feelings: He’ll do anything for peace! He just wants to avoid war and conflict at any cost.
The film is filled with as much plot and background data as one of Marwan’s reports (including an opening voice-over that quickly sums up an entire war), and this approach does unfortunately hold us at an arm’s length since we’re never able to stop long enough to get a true sense of the people behind the pages handed from one man to the next, but that does not make this any the less fascinating. “The Angel” gives a fast-paced, exciting and well-made depiction of everything Marwan did decades earlier to lead to roughly forty years of peace